Gaming, Hands-On, Smartphone

Asus ROG Phone Hands-On: A True Gaming Smartphone

There are more than a handful of “gaming smartphones” in the market now, but only a few are truly deserving of the title; one of which is the Asus ROG Phone. Beyond its raw hardware power, the ROG Phone’s gaming-centric features make it arguably the most interesting gaming smartphone in the market now.

I managed to spend some time with Asus’ brand new phone, and I’m really, really impressed with it. However, you do have to pay a pretty hefty price tag for it.

Unlike most flagship smartphones, the ROG Phone comes with a “specially selected” Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset that is clocked at 2.96GHz. Paired with 8GB of RAM, as well as 128GB or 512GB of fast UFS 2.1 storage, these will allow the phone – in theory – to perform better than most phones in various tasks, including gaming.

I’ve played a couple rounds of PUBG Mobile on the ROG Phone, and it can max out the game’s graphics settings without much difficulty. On top of that, the frame rate is also high and consistent, lending to a very pleasant gaming experience.

Aside from its chipset, the ROG Phone also comes with a GameCool “vapour-chamber cooling system,” which promises better CPU cooling efficiency. If you want even better cooling performance, there’s also the AeroActive Cooler attachment – it can supposedly lower the phone’s surface temperature by up to 4.7°C.

While I can’t say for sure if the AeroActive Cooler can really lower the temperature of the ROG Phone by that much, the attachment’s fan does bring in plenty of cool air the moment I snap it on. It’s quite an interesting experience, and I imagine it’ll be really useful in long gaming sessions.

But what makes the ROG Phone a truly unique gaming smartphone are the AirTriggers, and I’d argue this is the best reason to get this phone over its competition. Basically, in landscape orientation, the left and right portion of the phone at the top of the display are equipped with ultrasonic touch sensors, which can be programmed accordingly. In PUBG Mobile, for example, I can set the left trigger to aim down sights, and the right trigger to shoot.

The best part is, the AirTriggers work very, very well. I can set how much pressure is needed to activate them, and they work almost like actual buttons; they’re very intuitive to use. Practically any game can make use of it as well: both PUBG Mobile and Fortnite can take advantage of the feature, and I imagine other mobile games – especially shooters – can too.

As a gaming smartphone, the ROG Phone has a good display too. Its 6-inch 2160 x 1080 HDR-capable AMOLED panel is bright, vibrant, and has great viewing angles. The display also has a high 90Hz refresh rate, but only certain games can run at that frame rate. I tested Vainglory on the ROG Phone, and that game ran at 90fps consistently – that’s impressive.

Display aside, other aspects of the ROG Phone are equally good too. The matte finish of the phone’s metal frame is nice, the back glass panel looks and feels premium, and tipping the scales at 200g, I love the heft of the phone. After all, it has a sizeable 4,000mAh battery, which should return great battery life.

However, there are certain aspects of the ROG Phone that are questionable. For one, there’s the odd fingerprint sensor’s placement. Not only is it placed off-centre, it’s also hard to reach up to it. To make matters worse, it’s not the most responsive or accurate fingerprint sensor either.

Thankfully, the ROG Phone’s face unlock feature works very well. It can accurately recognise my face very quickly, and it can unlock the phone just as quick too.

In terms of software, the ROG Phone…has a very gaming-centric user interface. The icons are styled aggressively, black and orange colour scheme can be found in the notification shade and settings page, and there are quite a number of bloatware, though most of them are utility apps like calculator, file manager, and sound recorder.

As a whole, the ROG Phone’s software experience is quite decent. It feels fast and responsive, and I can access the app drawer by swiping up on the home screen; swiping down reveals the notification shade instead. Sure, the user interface’s design may not be to everyone’s taste, but hey, this is a gaming smartphone. It’s only natural for the software to complement this fact.

Oh, although it’s a small detail, I love the design of the ROG Phone’s always-on display. The red accent is a very nice touch.

Considering the ROG Phone’s heavy focus on gaming, how good is its camera? Equipped with 12MP f/1.7 and 8MP f/2.2 wide-angle camera sensors, the ROG Phone’s camera performance is…serviceable. It can without a doubt take good shots at daytime – most phones can do that – but under more challenging lighting conditions, the camera performance takes a dive.

Not only does the camera feel more sluggish in low light conditions, the image output are not great either. Noise is very apparent, details are lacking, and the shutter speed slows down considerably. Not surprisingly, the 8MP wide-angle shooter takes worse images than the primary 12MP camera too. The 8MP f/2.0 front-facing shooter, on the other hand, is a decent selfie camera.

This level of camera performance isn’t entirely unexpected: the ROG Phone focuses on gaming above all else. Is it a horrible phone for photography? Not exactly. While it doesn’t have great camera performance, it can certainly get the job done in a pinch.

The Asus ROG Phone is easily the Taiwanese company’s most impressive smartphone to date. It’s a blazing fast phone, its gaming features – the AirTriggers, especially – are genuinely useful, and its overall build quality and finish rival that of other high-end, flagship smartphones.

If you’re looking for the absolute best gaming smartphone this year, the ROG Phone fits the bill – even more so than the new Razer Phone 2, in my opinion. Even though the Razer Phone 2 comes with a faster 120Hz display, its design is mostly unchanged from its predecessor. The ROG Phone definitely looks sleeker in comparison, and Razer’s offering does not have the former’s very useful AirTriggers.

That being said, as impressive as the ROG Phone is, it’s priced on the higher side of things. In Malaysia, the 128GB model retails at RM3,499, while the much more generous 512GB variant goes for RM3,999. That puts this phone in the same price range as other high-end flagship devices, and it’s not a great place to be in for a niche product like the ROG Phone.

It’s niche in the sense that the ROG Phone’s design philosophy, feature set, and hardware are meant to appeal to mobile gamers; the average smartphone user will be better served by other flagship smartphones that are more well-rounded. This is the ROG Phone’s main pitfall, but if you’re willing to fork out the money for it, it will serve you very well – as a gaming smartphone.

Update, 22 October 7PM: This article has been updated with the Malaysian pricing of the Asus ROG Phone.